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Kevin Richardson’s unique relationship with some of Africa’s apex predators have opened many doors and captivated the imagination of many people throughout the world. He has presented and produced several documentaries that detail his relationships with the animals and highlight the plight of lions both in captivity and in the wild.

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For those out there who think I drug the lions in order to interact, I guess technically you may be right in a sense. When Siam hears my car he gets up and waits for me by the gate. What exactly is he waiting for? His daily fix of catnip of course. So in this photo, there are many neural pathways lighting up all at once. Head rubbing, which releases oxytocin, licking, chewing and the smell of nepetalactone which gets released from the catnip which gets Siam on a high lasting around 12-15 minutes, of drooling, goofiness and calmness like never seen before in a lion. But think again if you think just putting some catnip on the ground will do the trick. Oh no, Siam only responds when it’s in my hand, mushed up and spread all over his face together with his drool 🤤. That’s the perfect mix to a happy cat. Interestingly enough not all the lions seem to have receptors that respond to catnip and therefore it’s a bit of a trial and error exercise. The gene 🧬 is thought to be hereditary. Generally speaking, it’s the lions that love the 💩 that also love the catnip. Go figure!

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Sitting down, minding my own business, Vayetse walks up to me to give me a head rub. Why did he do that? Head rubbing and licking reinforce social bonds in lions. When his enrichment walk started around 20-30 minutes before this moment, he was overstimulated with other scents and sights that kept his mind busy and in overdrive. This is excellent mental stimulation for him which he and his ladies don’t otherwise get in their normal surroundings especially after being there for some time. It’s one of the biggest reasons why I keep a personal relationship with the lions in my care. Without this relationship Vayetse, Livy and Ginny would never get opportunities like these and would probably live out the rest of their days in an enclosure spanning a hectare or 2. We’ve all had a taste of how this feels during lockdown. So back to why he comes up to head rub. Well after he’s gotten all his mental stimulation for the morning his brain starts taking other things in, like Livy, Ginny and ... well... me. Basically he’s reaffirming his bond with me and getting his scent rubbed on my head. I’m in a very vulnerable and submissive position yet he chooses to reinforce his bond which shows and reinforces the trust we have in each other. We also both get a release of Oxytocin during this bonding moment. 📸 Rodney Xolile Nombekana
With special thanks as always to Craghoppers for my incredible #nosilife gear that always stands up to the rigorous tests the lions put it through

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